June 16, 2016

Mel Miller (left) and Bob Merz doing their American Gothic impression Mel Miller (left) and Bob Merz doing their American Gothic impression

by Mel Miller, Bird Keeper

The anticipation overwhelmed me. Why was it taking so long to drive 200 miles? And even though I’m a bird keeper, I just wanted to get to the prairie and reintroduce American burying beetles.

I know about the efforts of the Zoo’s WildCare Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation from Bob Merz, Zoological Manager of Invertebrates and Center Director. Bob, you see, is my husband, and I hear a lot about the ABBs (that’s what the cool kids call the beetles). I jumped at the chance to help, so I took a few vacation days and headed down to El Dorado Springs, MO, with Bob, three invertebrate keepers and 224 ABBs.

Because I had heard about the process just a bit, I knew what I was getting into: dig a big hole, dig a little hole in the side of the big hole, put a dead quail and a pair of beetles in the little hole, cover the big hole with a sod plug and cover all the sites with poultry wire to keep out possible scavengers.

Mel and her beetles Mel and her beetles

I was ready. Or so I thought. As with many projects, it usually takes more time to prepare than to do the actual projects. And this project was grander in scope than I had anticipated. The reintroduction isn’t just the Zoo’s project. The number of people we met up with was astounding. Many had laid the groundwork for imminent task:

      • The Nature Conservancy folks provided proper habitat at Wah’ Kon-Tah Prairie;
      • The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains and manages the habitat; and
      • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the beetles and all of the legal stuff that goes along with a Federally endangered species.

And then there were at least 35 volunteers, like me, ready to dig holes. I met college kids, Master Naturalists and neighbors. After Bob gave us instructions and a rather stirring account of why were all there, we split into three groups and headed to our release sites.

ABB Crew 2016 ABB Crew 2016

Once at the site, I felt I knew the drill: just dig  a hole, right? It turned out digging holes in the prairie isn’t just a walk in the prairie. But we did it: the college kids, the naturalists, the neighbors and the employees of all the agencies involved. Bob inspected all our work to make sure the holes, all 37 of them, were ready for beetles. The time we had been waiting for finally arrived. Here came the beetles!  Bob demonstrated the process, and we meticulously completed our task. Mission accomplished.

American burying beetle American burying beetle

We reconvened with the volunteers from the other two release sites and had a great dinner waiting for us. As we ate, we talked about our day and our common goal: reestablish ABBs to their former home. After the goodbyes, we parted ways taking our shared memories home.

Back at our motel, the Saint Louis Zoo contingent sat outside to, well, get on the Internet. Because that’s what we do. What if something big happened and we missed it? I opened Facebook which presented a memory from six years ago. I was in the field in Peru working with Humboldt penguins for the Center of Conservation in Punta San Juan. What? Really? “Hey you guys, I was in Peru six years ago today. Isn’t that bizarre?” That got me thinking about the juxtaposition of my field work.

Mel and Humboldt penguin chicks in Peru Mel and Humboldt penguin chicks in Peru

In Peru, I was presented with a remarkable opportunity to help perform health assessments of Humboldt penguins. The two projects were alike in some ways. I was part of a group as varied as the ABB group: a couple of veterinarians, some college kids and Peruvian staff who are stationed at the Punta San Juan, Peru, Reserve. The team helping to save the penguins included representatives from the Saint Louis Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Brookfield Zoo and the Center for Environmental Sustainability at the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima. Sounds just like the same kind of cooperation the ABBs enjoyed.

The anticipation, the travel time, knowing what to expect, finding out it’s not quite as easy as it sounds and then doing the actual work. All the same.

Unlike the day-long ABB project, I was in Punta San Juan for a week while we performed assessments of nearly 100 penguins. Each penguin was given a thorough veterinary examination and many tests to provide valuable data on the health of the population. 

Punta San Juan, Peru

My work with these projects are just two of the 13 Centers incorporated in the Zoo’s WildCare Institute, which encompasses wildlife management and recovery, conservation science, and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife. From both my experiences, I’d like to think I met all three of those goals.

Whether beetles or penguins, Missouri or Peru, one day or one week, I never thought I’d play such an integral part in conserving wildlife. And I certainly never thought I’d work side-by-side with my husband on a conservation project. I’d have to say that day on the prairie with Bob was one of the best days of my life.

Thanks to Ben Alleger who took this great time-lapse footage of the reintroduction on June 7. Watch 2 hours of work in just 25 seconds.